An Illustrated Guide to European Living Standards in the Really Long Run

Part of the problem with modern scholarly discourses on global polarization is that they get the explanandum wrong. Contrary to the emplotment of modern economic historians, global polarization did not begin with the Industrial Revolution. More precisely, the latitudinal gradient in living standards became steeper in the century after 1870 as high latitude nations pulled away from low latitude nations. But the gradient already existed before the nineteenth century. When did it come into existence? I will show that it has always existed; that high latitudes have been favored for at least forty thousand years.

No matter what numbers are being thrown around, we do not have data on effective incomes going back more than a few centuries. And even the national economic statistics that we do have are not entirely reliable. Much more reliable are actuarial measures like life expectancy. But these too aren’t available beyond a few centuries. We have no choice but to rely on anthropometric measures like stature and body size. Fortunately, these are faithful indicators of living standards, particularly when averaged over long periods. The reason is very simple. Whether or not there were Malthusian cycles before the breakthrough to industrial modernity, long run differences in height and body size between chrono-demes indicate differences in net nutritional status (otherwise they couldn’t possibly last for so long). This true both diachronically and synchronically; that is, it holds across the panel data. We’ll focus on the former in this dispatch. But we’ll get the latter out of the way first.

We will interrogate variables from the Ruff et al. (2018)’s osteometric dataset that are known to correlated with everyday living standards from modern data. Table 1 reports the estimates. The latitudinal gradient is estimated by OLS after controlling for fixed effects for sex and period. We can see that it is extremely significant for all variables except pelvic bone width (which may have to do with small sample sizes for specific periods). Note that this is within Europe. Across the globe the tyranny of the isotherms is even more manifest. The parameter estimates for the dummies in Table 1 measure how much the periods diverge from the Bronze Age.

Table 1. Linear Regressions (tStat). 
Stature Body mass Femur maximum length Pelvic bone width Femur head diameter
Intercept 134.56 38.29 96.22 70.70 80.45
Male 34.67 32.82 33.31 8.31 43.89
Latitude 7.79 7.02 6.70 0.69 6.96
Early Up. Pal. 5.70 3.48 5.57 0.23 4.32
Late Up. Pal. -3.02 0.23 -4.33 -2.69 1.82
Neolithic -2.12 -2.25 -2.89 -3.56 -2.10
Iron/Roman -1.52 0.91 -0.01 -0.36 2.21
Medieval 0.62 2.27 2.30 -1.61 4.72
Early modern -5.46 -3.48 -3.39 -4.69 -2.07
Very recent -2.67 -2.03 -1.33 -3.71 -1.90
Adj R^2 0.39 0.36 0.38 0.08 0.08
N 2120 2053 2040 1195 2031
Souce: Ruff et al. (2018); author’s computations. Estimates in bold are significant at the 5 percent level.

The following tables report the means for the periods.

Table 2. Anthropometric measures for European males. 
Min age (ka) Max age (ka) Femur max length Femur head diameter Pelvic bone width
Early Upper Paleolithic 26,406 33,700 482 49 279
Late Upper Paleolithic 6,025 21,922 435 48 270
Neolithic 3,975 7,300 449 47 270
Bronze 2,950 4,350 453 47 275
Iron/Roman 1,650 2,250 449 48 276
Medieval 550 1,350 458 49 274
Early modern 150 320 436 47 263
Very recent 10 100 448 47 267
Souce: Ruff et al. (2018).
Table 2. Anthropometric measures for European females.
Min age (ka) Max age (ka) Femur max length Femur head diameter Pelvic bone width
Early Upper Paleolithic 26,406 32,285 432 46 268
Late Upper Paleolithic 5,928 19,013 410 43 260
Neolithic 3,975 7,300 415 42 259
Bronze 2,950 4,350 413 42 272
Iron/Roman 1,650 2,250 421 43 266
Medieval 550 1,350 421 43 265
Early modern 150 320 417 42 262
Very recent 10 100 412 41 263
Souce: Ruff et al. (2018).

The basic pattern is hard to escape. Pre-LGM populations were bigger and taller than populations at the other end of the great bottleneck associated with the Last Glacial Maximum. The decline between the Early and Late Upper Paleolithic is highly significant. During the Neolithic, Europe saw the arrival of slightly taller but otherwise smaller populations of farmers from the Near East. This is expected since height is more plastic than other measures of body size and these populations were adapted to the warmer climes (and thus smaller in accordance with Bergmann’s rule). The same biological populations survived into the Bronze Age. Appropriately, we see little change between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. Although female pelvic bone width does widen. The Iron/Roman period is after the arrival of the Yamnaya pastoralists. These were bigger people but not so wide at the hips. Stature increased between the Iron Age and the Medieval Age, but only for males. Body mass barely increased. There was a major fall in living standards in the early modern transition. Was this related to the epidemiological unification of the world or the transition to urban life? At any rate what is clear is that there was a severe decline in living standards between the Medieval and the Early Modern eras. In the last transition, that between Early Modern and Modern eras, we see that male living standards improved but female living standards did not. But we should note that male measures are more reliable since some basic parameters of female skeletons, especially pelvic bone width, may be more plastic due to the rapid feedback from maternal mortality. BodymassheightFemurFHDPelvic

So I was not kidding about it being downhill since the days of the Gravettian mammoth hunters. Do not miss the force of the argument. Averaged over thousands or hundreds of years, anthropometric metrics like stature and body mass contain a very strong signal of living standards. The big picture is clear from the index displayed next. It adds up the values of femur maximum length, pelvic bone with and femur head diameter after standardizing them to have mean 0 and variance 1 (and adding 100 to the result). It could not be clearer that pre-LGM populations were dramatically bigger than later Europeans; that there was a significant shrinking of European body size between 1450 and 1720 CE, followed by a significant improvement in the last 100 years or so.


The notion that European living standards were stuck in a Malthusian trap is inconsistent with the evidence marshalled here. The evidence indicates that European nutritional standards were higher for two thousand years before 1450, when they began to decline, not to improve until the late-nineteenth century. Is the Malthusian Trap a real thing or a phantasmagoria of economic historians seeking a structural break on the wrong side of 1800? And what on earth were the Gravettians eating? (Ha.)


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